The oldest known handgun in existence, ca. 1400-10
A tiller stocked wrought-iron hexagonal (!) barrel with a hook for support, retaining the earliest type of igniting mechanism.
In speaking of a handgun, I define it as a portable barrel, stocked and combined with an igniting mechanism.
Only this combination allows the shooter to handle his gun safely and efficiently, at the same time enabling him to fully concentrate on his aim in the very second of firing. The latter was not possible when using manual ignition by either an igniting iron (German: Loseisen), a piece of glowing match, tinder, coal or perhaps wood.
The attached watercolor from Konrad Kyeser's Bellifortis, dated 1405, shows a very similar tiller-stocked and also hexagonal iron barrel being fired by means of a (glowing) igniting iron, but no mechanical lock device.
Next in line there are two contemporary illustrations from the Codices Vindobonensis 34 and 3069 respectively, kept in the Vienna State Library: one, dated 1410, showing exactly this type of gun, being made ready for firing - indentical to mine in each detail, but not yet equipped with a mechanism; the other, dated 1411, respresents the world's oldest known document of an igniting mechanism, obviously based on the system well known from crossbows. The small piece of (glowing) tinder is clearly visible in the split head of the long tinder holder which has not yet taken the refined and fashionable Renaissance shape of a serpentine.
As the mechanism on my actual gun is visibly more evolved in that it features a primitive and rather fragile return spring riveted to the tinder holder, I judge it to be a working amendment or modernization of ca. 1420-30.
The rest of the gun can be dated to about 1400-10 and represents a highly important piece of the German High-Gothic period.
The whole piece is preserved in unique, virtually 'untouched', perfect condition and heavily patinated throughout. The barrel still retains much of its original minium (red lead) paint, just like Ed's cannon barrel. The long oak tiller stock is put into and secured with a nail to a wrapped-iron tiller which extends from the end of the barrel to the rear. The muzzle area shows only very slight swamping, the muzzle head had not yet been in fashion.
While both round and octagonal barrels are characteristic of the 14th to the early 16th centuries, six-sided (hexagonal) barrels are extremely rare to be found. The touch hole is quite small, placed on top and shows no traces of latter pan-like moulding. Sights had not yet been invented at that time, either. The earliest type of rudimentary back sight can be attributed to around 1460, and a Munich haquebut barrel in my collection, dated 1481, features the earliest datable fully developed form of a back sight.
I know of no similar existing example of a fully developed handgun (see definition above) of such an early date and would, as ever, be very grateful for any hint on a comparable item.
The perfect documentation provided by dated historical illustrations add further to its singular importance in historical weaponry, in its raw and primeval appearance.
This is absolutely outstanding Matchlock!!! and thank you for the detail and references as well as excellent photos and illustrations. Looking at this sets a fascinating benchmark in thinking of the indescribable contrast between then and now.
I'm curious about the red paint, is there a specific reason for the choice of color. We have had discussions over the years concerning the use of red on various weapons, mostly inconclusive, but most interesting. I think you mentioned green also in some cases.
All best regards,
Red paint on iron parts of weapons
In trying to understand the meaning of color paints on arms (mainly red) I have experienced it to be very helpful to study contemporary paintings in churches and museums, but also illuminations in books. Thus, you will much better grasp the common 'fashionable' attitude of the Gothic an Renaissance periods.
Looking at such historic illustrations will make it obvious that especially red and green, but also, to a certain amount, blue seem to have been the prevailing colors some 500 to 600 years ago, not only in garments but in wood and iron hands and crafts alike. Wooden chests were painted in red and green, with red lead (minium) to their iron bands and locks. The interiors of churches were red, green and blue.
So I should say that minium paint on iron parts of arms mainly served as an anti-rust protective, but at the same time reflected the fashionable 'trends' of the respective period.
The attachments comprise 500 year-old pieces such as
- a haquebut with its stock painted red and green and with the Nuremberg coat-of-arms
- details from two 15h century cupboards
- and details from the interior of the Gothic cathedral in Brixen/South Tyrol
Try and enjoy them just for their beautiful colors and you will get the idea!
More examples of period artwork illustration of ca. 1430, Alamannic-Swabian, Ms Rh hist. 0033b, Swiss Central Library, Zürich.
Illustrated are tiller arquebuses with iron barrels, very close in shape to my gun, with reinforced breech section and not yet equiped with a hook (!) but fitted with what is recorded to be the earliest mechanical igniting device for a piece of tinder or coal, known to have been in use since at least the first years of the 15th c.
Please cf. similar illustrations posted above.
One barrel is shown being cleaned with a scourer.
I realize that in English this type of arquebus should actually be called a long gun or longarm; what is defined as a handgun would be called Faustfeuerwaffe in German.
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